Epiphany IV--January 28, 2007
Bill Long 1/15/07
Jeremiah 1:4-10; The Prophet--"Becoming God for a Day"
Here is the text in the NRSV:
"4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
6 Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ 7 But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.'"
The Commissioning of a Prophet
If there ever was a time you thought you should dust off your Hebrew, this is the time. The passage above is in the most straightforward Hebrew, and your patient combing of the Hebrew text yields unexpected riches (for example, in v. 10, the verbs translated "pluck up" and "pull down" are natash and natats, creating a beautiful alliteration). By struggling with the Hebrew, you not only want to know that the odor of flowers is wafting in the window; you want to know the names and characteristics of the flowers.
This powerful passage is connected to the other three lectionary passages for the week in the following way: this text, Ps. 71 and Luke 4 all speak of the conflict that results when a person is true to the call of God in life, while the final text, I Cor. 13, speaks of the way of love, which doesn't deny conflict but raises it to a higher plane of harmony. Conflict may be the immediate result of faithful preaching the Word of God, but love is the distant bottom line. Remember that if you are one who seems to labor for the bottom line of next Sunday or next year; love is the long-term goal.
This call or commissioning narrative of Jeremiah leaps off the page to us with its passion and insight, but the three points I will note are these: (1) Jeremiah--The Messenger to the Nations; (2) Jeremiah--Age is No Obstacle for God; (3) Jeremiah--Doing the Work of God.
I. The Messenger to the Nations
In every other vivid prophetic call narrative we have in the OT (Is. 6; Ezek. 2-3; Am. 7), the prophet is told that he will be sent only to Israel. Often Israel is described as a disobedient people, a nation which really doesn't seem to want to hear the word of God, but only Israel is in view. Not here. Jeremiah will be sent as a messenger to the nations (v.5). So controversial is this, however, that the Greek text which "translated" Jeremiah makes "nations" into "nation." It is just too difficult for people to conceive that God, the God of Israel, also had a purpose to effect through the prophet to the rest of the world. In this regard, Jeremiah may have "trumped" Second Isaiah (40-66) in arguing for a universalistic role for the prophet. Many scholars think that it was not until the exile, not until Israel was scattered, that the prophetic tradition could have developed such a powerfully universal view of God and God's prophet as is apparent in Is. 40ff. But if Jer. 1:5 comes from the period of Jeremiah's life (even though this call scene may have been added or redacted by an exilic-era editor), we have strong evidence here that even before Second Isaiah a prophet has conceived of a strong universal role of God and God's prophet. He will go to the nations and speak to them. The prophetic task is not just to turn Israel around; it is to proclaim God's word througout the world. Such a perspective is helpful for us in 2007. We long for a Word of God which isn't limited in its application just to our group, our clan, our tribe--but is a message for all the earth. God speaks that message through Jeremiah and, we pray, through us.
But this message was shaped in Jeremiah long before he was born. Amos's call came when he was watching the flock (7:15); Isaiah's came on the year that King Uzziah died when he was worshipping in the Temple (Is. 6); Ezekiel's came as an adult when he was in exile with the people (Ez. 1-3). Twice it is emphasized in v. 4 that it happened before Jeremiah was even in the womb. How can that be? Well, Reformed preachers and those sympathetic to theology derived from the Calvinist tradition will rejoice in this passage, because it points to the sovereign ordering of life by God. Before God fashions, God appoints. Other biblical passages explore God's activity in shaping us. One I like the best is Ps. 139: 13, 15, "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb....my frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth." In any case, v. 5 is a verse of immense comfort--Jeremiah's commissioning happens long before he even was born. If that is the way God acts, may God act like that for us, too?
The next essay "finishes" these thoughts.